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Suicides, drug poisonings, and alcohol-related deaths cluster with health and social disadvantage in 4.1 million citizens from two nations.

Psychological Medicine 2023 December 20
BACKGROUND: Deaths from suicides, drug poisonings, and alcohol-related diseases ('deaths of despair') are well-documented among working-age Americans, and have been hypothesized to be largely specific to the U.S. However, support for this assertion-and associated policies to reduce premature mortality-requires tests concerning these deaths in other industrialized countries, with different institutional contexts. We tested whether the concentration and accumulation of health and social disadvantage forecasts deaths of despair, in New Zealand and Denmark.

METHODS: We used nationwide administrative data. Our observation period was 10 years (NZ = July 2006-June 2016, Denmark = January 2007-December 2016). We identified all NZ-born and Danish-born individuals aged 25-64 in the last observation year (NZ = 1 555 902, Denmark = 2 541 758). We ascertained measures of disadvantage (public-hospital stays for physical- and mental-health difficulties, social-welfare benefit-use, and criminal convictions) across the first nine years. We ascertained deaths from suicide, drugs, alcohol, and all other causes in the last year.

RESULTS: Deaths of despair clustered within a population segment that disproportionately experienced multiple disadvantages. In both countries, individuals in the top 5% of the population in multiple health- and social-service sectors were at elevated risk for deaths from suicide, drugs, and alcohol, and deaths from other causes. Associations were evident across sex and age.

CONCLUSIONS: Deaths of despair are a marker of inequalities in countries beyond the U.S. with robust social-safety nets, nationwide healthcare, and strong pharmaceutical regulations. These deaths cluster within a highly disadvantaged population segment identifiable within health- and social-service systems.

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